History vs. Heritage in Public Schools

Today I read an article on the relationship between “history” and “heritage” studies.  Here in the United States we rarely think of “heritage studies” as an academic subject, but in Europe it is an important part of a child’s education.  This particular article, titled  “Heritage Education: Challenges in Dealing with the Past,” explores the teaching of “heritage” in the Netherlands.  Maria Grever and Carla van Boxtel define “heritage education” as “an approach to teaching and learning that uses material and immaterial heritage as primary instructional resources to increase pupils’ understanding of history and culture.”  If I read them correctly, they want to make sure that historical thinking finds its way into the heritage curriculum in the Netherlands.

And here they expound upon the differences between “heritage” and “history”:

Although…imaginative engagement is an important strength of many heritage lessons, it might also generate specific problems when the aim is to learn history. Historians often complain that heritage and heritage education foster a presentist approach to the past, ignoring the historical context, which often seems strange from the present point of view. Furthermore, scholars in the field of history education emphasise that historical empathy is a complex cognitive process that implies a ‘rethinking’ of the specific decisions taken by actors in the past in order to explain certain actions and behaviour. It indeed requires a careful reconstruction of an historical context. Hence, historians appreciate distance when attempting to understand the complexity of the past because it provides sufficient detachment to look at that past from various perspectives. 

With respect to both school history and heritage education, the challenge is to translate the meanings attributed by actors at the time to past events into present-day meanings understandable by pupils, without disregarding the historical context. An important difference between heritage education and school history, however, is that the former often has a more performative character, aimed at experiencing direct contact with the past through objects, exhibitions or historical sites. Because the staging of a specific past seeks to engage the public, the impression is that heritage education projects often tend to minimise historical distance. And yet, heritage education involves many different practices. There are examples of educational assignments referring to exhibitions and sites that not only stimulate an interest in history, curiosity about the past and imagination, but also try to enhance critical and historical thinking.

K-12 teachers and state social studies standards often confuse “heritage” and “history.”  We can thus learn a few things from this study of heritage education in Holland.

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